Trafficking and sex work in Latin America: are women really being rescued?

Jessica Gutiérrez is a therapist working with survivors of sexual violence based in Buenos Aires. She describes how her experience of a brothel raid in Mexico radically altered her views on trafficking for sexual exploitation.

Police raid in Chiapas, 2010

(photo: an “operativo de rescate” [rescue operation] in Chiapas, Mexico, 2010 – see Spanish language report in Prensa Libre)

A few years ago I worked as a psychotherapist in a governmental institution in Mexico that treated survivors of sexual violence. One day it was announced to us that we would have to participate in “operations” raids of homes or hotels that aimed to “rescue” victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

I resisted taking part in these “operations” because I wasn’t sure what they were all about. For several months I managed to avoid the call to participate in the raids. Psychologists that did go along told me they were taken to a hotel. They had to speak to the women there to “calm them down” and explain to them that they would be taken to make a statement.

Eventually I could avoid the calls no longer. I took part in my first and only “operation”. I saw how the rights of the women found in the hotel were trampled on. I witnessed the physical maltreatment of sex workers found in the vicinity. This single experience made me resign my job.

The raid made me rethink several issues. Was setting out to rescue victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation the correct strategy for dealing with the problem? Was the problem really as serious as people made out, or was it being sensationalised?

Above all I started to think about real victims of the raids: women engaged in prostitution for whom mistreatment at the hands of the police was by no means a novelty. The only aspect of the “operation” that would perhaps have been new to them was seeing the role of people like myself – psychologists and social workers who were acting as undercover cops, sent in to win the confidence of the women and then use this information in an unethical way.

I was also struck by how the therapeutic treatment for these women mostly consisted of convincing them that they were victims. If they disputed this, it was because their vulnerability had rendered them incapable of realising their true situation. I noticed they were unwilling or even angry at the idea of receiving therapy. Some escaped from the refuges where they were housed “for their protection”. They didn’t seem to see it as rescue.

Legal arguments

Later I moved to Argentina, where I now live, to study this phenomenon through an anthropological lens. I’ve read through the available literature, examined the notion of trafficking for sexual exploitation and analysed how the figure of the trafficking victim has been constructed.

What started as a social debate is now a legal argument between those who favour legalisation and regulation of sex work and those who aim to abolish or prohibit the trade.

There are associated arguments over whether the clients or those that profit from sex work should be criminalised. Some take the position that anti-trafficking laws are the only way to protect people from sexual slavery. Others say these punitive measures are in practice racist and sexist, and become yet another strategy for controlling national borders.

The legal debate is mostly about imposing classifications on sex work and punishing “abnormal” behaviour. There is a reluctance to accept that women voluntarily engage in sex work – instead it is held that prostitution is an act of violence against women in all instances.

This attitude is simply prejudice based on ignorance of the actual daily practices of sex workers. Prostitution is not all the same – there is a very broad range of activities. In some cases the women are in vulnerable situations, in others not. Nor is it the case that sex work is always a “last resort” – occasionally it is the best option that women have available to them. Their choices should be respected.

The law serves to homogenise perceptions of sex work and propagate a common sense around these issues. It typically identifies only women and children as being at risk from trafficking – the main legal instrument that regulates this crime is the “UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children” (better known as the Palermo Protocol).

This presents women as vulnerable, weak and unprotected. It refers back to the days when women who wanted to leave the domestic sphere were warned of the risks that they would run if they did so. This propaganda aimed at reinforcing the role of women in the family home by falsely presenting the domestic sphere as a place of safety for women.

Discourse of victimhood

The shifts in discourse around this issue are worth analysing. Once we spoke of the struggle against the oppression of women. But today the focus has shifted towards a struggle against violence towards women, one where women are primarily represented as victims, particularly but not exclusively of trafficking.

As the discourse against oppression turned into a discourse about victims, the political perspectives associated with it became narrower. The demands of women are increasingly channelled through the state as interlocutor – and the principal demand is for protection.

Previously we identified political and economic systems as responsible for our oppression – class society, patriarchy, capitalism. Nowadays the responsibility falls on individuals. One common aim of legislation is to criminalise those who benefit economically from sex work performed by others. This is a hypocritical and contradictory goal in a capitalist context where everything is commodified, no work is fairly remunerated, and where profiting from the exploitation of other people’s labour is built into the fabric of the system.

In the US we see “zero tolerance” policies enthusiastically promoted by conservatives and anti-prostitution groups. Since 2001 the State Department has rated countries according to the actions they take to combat this trafficking. The consequences for countries that don’t obtain good ratings are limits on loans or financial aid. Unsurprisingly, the countries with the best ratings are those allied to the US.

Another common theme is the notion that it is highly dangerous for women to migrate from their home contexts (which are often ones of extreme poverty). This foments fears that they will fall victim to trafficking networks. There is nothing new about this – there are documented cases of this kind of moral panic dating back to over a hundred years ago. These campaigns tap into racism and discrimination against the poor, and combine them with moralistic propaganda against prostitution.

Consequences for women

The consequences of anti-trafficking policies are varied but usually negative. In some cases women are returned to their country of origin with the justification that they are being “rescued”.

Another typical consequences of “rescue operations” is that sites for sex work – bars, brothels, private hotels – are closed down and the women that worked there are forced to work in the street. In practice this puts them at greater risk of violence and makes them more vulnerable, not less.

But the wider effect is to stoke up popular myths about kidnapping for the purposes of sex trafficking. It is the feminisation of fear: women are made to feel they are in a state of constant risk.

I interviewed a 7 year old girl a little while ago. She told me that her biggest fear was that she would be kidnapped by a white van (a reference to an urban myth that such vans go round kidnapping women and children). It surprised me that such a young girl would have internalised this fear, and brought home to me the extent of the collective paranoia generated by the media and the authorities.

I don’t deny the existence of cases where women are forced to prostitute themselves against their will. But laws, policies, actions or strategies like these ones do nothing to resolve the problem – and frequently generate worse ones. We need a fresh approach, one based on the realities of sex work not on fantasies of kidnapping, victimhood and rescue.

There are 12 comments

  1. lauraborders

    The perceptions recorded here are very old history now. Perhaps look at Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry and all the other publications on rescue and victimisation at lauraagustin.com

  2. Thaddeus Gregory Blamchette

    I must agree with Laura. I am happy that you have finally started to critically look at these operations and victimization discourse and what it means, but the fact that you were sucked into it without thinking about any of this shows what an uphill struggle we are fighting.

    I mean, it is not hard to figure out what these operations “mean”. I am sure cops in Mexico are like cops here: uniformed thugs. You are obviously a smart, educated person and no that. But until you saw it first hand, you apparently couldn’t figure out “what it meant”.

    You might want to ask yourself about the “whys” behind that blind spot.

    People have been writing about these colateral damage issues for a decade now. There is nothing “fresh” about what you are saying: it is just that the anti-trafficking juggernaught has so much money and respectability that even folks like you haven’t heard of this stuff and apparently need to see it first hand before you will believe what folks like me have been saying.

    I second the recommendation to read Sex at the Margins, as a starter piece.

    Meanwhile, welcome to the Dark Side. We have cookies.

  3. Nancie Ferguson

    I think you’ll find people have been writing about these issues for a lot longer than a decade, and that there was nothing especially “fresh” about Sex at the Margins in that regard, at least to people who were familiar with the work of Kamala Kempadoo, Jo Doezema, Wendy Chapkis, and others, all published much earlier. I don’t get why this piece has attracted such negative comments from those on ‘the Dark Side’ (not much of a welcome!) Isn’t it more important to get this information and these ideas out to as wide an audience as possible than to claim some kind of ‘intellectual property’ in them? Do you want people to stop recording their perceptions of injustice and oppression because someone else recorded theirs a few years back?

    1. Thaddeus Gregory Blanchette

      Well, I wasn’t trying to be negative and Lord knows I certainly wans’t trying to claim intellectual property! Certainly, Kempadoo and Dosezema and Chapkis, et al, were talking about this in the late 20th century. But the “collateral damage” studies are mostly post-Palermo Protocol, wouldn’t you agree? Agustin’s book just comes to mind as a fairly accessible starting point for this stuff, not as the definitive study!

      My main point is that there has been a hell of a lot of info produced about the collateral damage caused by rescue for a long time now. Seeing someone who was invloved on the rescue side of things discover that all is not well with armed police interventions into prostitution is rather like seeingsomeone who was involved with the whole “gay cure” thing discovering that homosexuals were being hurt by the supposed cure.

      I’m glad they’re here, but… hello!

  4. macunaima30

    And the short answer to the question posed in the title, Nancie, is “No”.

    The author still seems to have some doubts about this.

  5. Cat Bell

    So, no problem with sex trafficking or sex work – the women all do it voluntarily, are not oppressed or exploited in any way – the only problem is with the police.
    What ever happened to the socialist understanding that prostitution is part of women’s oppression and actively perpetuates it??
    Here’s a link which gives a much better picture of the realities of the ‘work’ (although it does argue, mistakenly in my opinion, for the Nordic model). http://tanjarahm.dk/38-my-speech-at-a-seminar-in-finland-the-27th-of-august-2014/

    1. Thaddeus Gregory Blanchette

      Excuse me Cat, but the socialist perspective is that marriage AND prostitution are equally oppressive in that respect… and, oddly enough, I don’t see many anti-trafficking activists calling for the criminalization of marriage.

      Also, perhaps you can point out to me which socialist feminist author thinks it’s a good idea to rely on the armed repressive forces of the capitalist State – i.e. the police – in order to achieve justice for women?

      Seems like a rather partial and carceral reading of “socialism” to me. The kind of reading made by someone who has never actually, y’know, read socialist feminist theorists. And sure, sex-workers, LIKE ALL WORKERS, are exploited. The SOCIALIST response to that is quite clear: the political organization of the workers. Socialists do not call for workers’ criminalization and depoliticization at the hands of a supposedly protective state apparatus.

      And you don’t have to tell me about the realities of prostitution. I am in and out of brothels in Rio de Janeiro every week and have interviewed literally thousands of sex workers. That speech you linked us to? It doesn;t describe in the slightest the realities of the women I know.

      Sorry.

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